As part of their July & August Summer Series of different cultural celebrations, The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History is showcasing a current traveling exhibition from the Chicago Field Museum titled A Celebration of Souls, which offers a fascinating and colorful journey of different traditions practiced in Mexico and Latin America as part of their annual Dia de los Mertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration.
Not to be confused with Halloween, which has its roots in ancient Europe, Day of the Dead is a ritualistic celebration that occurs on November 1st & 2nd each year where families honor deceased loved ones and welcome the spirits return home.
It is one of the most important holidays in Latin America and is observed from the end of October thru the beginning of November. Various languages and traditions produce very different versions of this holiday across Latin America and the U.S, but in the Mexican state of Oaxaca it remains a celebration when family and community renew their spiritual connections to the deceased.
According to The Castle Museum’s Jennifer Vannette, this current travelling exhibition on display at the museum does a beautiful job explaining and showing the traditions and what takes place through the photography and imagery of various photographers whom have captured this annual ritual as it unfolds.
“This annual celebration evolved through a blending of traditional indigenous religions and Catholicism that happened during colonialism, and is truly the most important holiday celebrated in Latin America that draws people together,” she explains.
“The exhibition features 26 stunning color photographs that capture Day of the Dead celebrations in and around Oaxaca,, Mexico, and also includes photographs taken by Saginaw’s own Larry Rodarte, publisher of MiGenta magazine, who captured his own experiences while visiting Mexico.”
“Families prepare for this celebration weeks in advance by planning lively reunions, decorating burial plots, and preparing special food from centuries-old recipes,” she continues. “Participants honor the deceased with home altars that include skeleton models, elaborate wreathes and crosses, votive lights, and fresh seasonal flowers, such as scattering marigolds to help guide the dead home, and preparing chocolate and pan de meruto (bread of the dead) at these community gatherings.”
Photographer Howard-Yana Shapiro has been involved with sustainable agricultural and tree cropping systems for over 30 years, working with governments and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. A Fulbright Scholar and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Awards, this former professor’s work is accompanied by the work of Ricardo J. Garibay Ruiz, a Mexico City native who has worked as a photographer and educator since 1985. His work has appeared in exhibitions in Mexico, the United States, and Japan, and published in magazines throughout the world.
In addition to the photographic display, the Castle Museum’s Celebration of Souls also captures the physical and three-dimensional components of this annual festivity by showcasing a pair of Ofrendas, which according to Jennifer translates literally into ‘offering’. “Essentially, these are alters that are created in tribute to ancestors that connect memorabilia and items that were important to them,” she explains. “An ofrenda is the offering placed in a home alter during the annual and traditionally Mexican Dia de Muertos celebration. They are usually created by the family members of a person who has died and is intended to welcome the deceased to the altar setting.”
“Ana Sanchez, lifelong resident of Saginaw, created an ofrenda for the Castle Museum’s temporary exhibit, and so did Larry Rodarte,” she continues. “So while the main exhibit comes to us from the Field Museum in Chicago, and shows the rich cultural traditions of Day of the Dead in Mexico, while these gorgeous photographs and descriptive text could stand on their own, we wanted to use this opportunity to also highlight the longstanding Hispanic community in Saginaw, and are grateful that both Ana and Larry volunteered to share their families’ stories.”
While installing and building her ofrenda, Ana shared that each one is unique – even each family’s ofrenda changes year to year – and some people do not think of it in the old traditional belief that the ofrenda will guide the spirits of loved ones, but agree that all ofrendas are about remembering and honoring deceased family members.
“So what you do is you put up the person who is deceased, and then you put things on the alter that they like doing, that they were good at, that they were known for, and then the food,” explains Ana. As an example she references her grandpa: “It wouldn’t matter how hot it was if he was working outside or planting the garden, he would say, ‘Ah, go get me a cup of coffee.” Ana added American flags because the Sanchez side of the family has three deceased veterans. Her dad loved to hunt, so there is a little deer. Her mom’s side of the family (the Ruiz side) had a parrot, so Ana added a parrot.
Consequently, these elaborate alters offer favorite foods, drinks, candles, sweets and flowers honoring their loved ones and are an important symbol of Day of the Dead. They offer well-needed energy after a long journey back form the land of the dead and are a celebratory feast of renewal. Such artistic and eye-pleasing arrangements help ensure a blessed and healthy year for the living, while remembering saints and loved ones who have passed.
The actual ‘Day of the Dead’ Celebration itself usually begins on Oct. 31st at noon with the spirits of deceased infants and children following a path of marigolds home to altars decorated with candies, sweet tamales, milk, and other treats. Next through Nov. 1st, families decorate and light candles at the graves of children. Then beginning at noon on Nov. 1st, spicy tamales, turkey or chicken with mole sauce, cigarettes, alcohol, bread, and other offerings are presented on home altars to draw home adult spirits. From Nov. 1st - 2nd, families go to the cemetery to picnic and light candles at the graves and concludes with masked and costumed people running through town to chase reluctant souls back to the land of the dead.
According to Jennifer, on Thursday, July 28th, Larry Rodarte will be giving a special talk about these traditions from 1:00 to 2:00 PM; and then on Friday, July 29th, the Castle Museum will be staying open late in order to tie in with Friday Night Live’s ‘Fiesta Grande’ Night.
In addition to this Celebration of Souls exhibition, which will be on display through August 15th, there will also be special events held every Thursday in July from 1:00 - 2:00 PM presented by Public Libraries of Saginaw. The schedule is as follows: July 14, Japanese Tea Garden Ceremony; July 21st; Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company; July 28th Dia De los Muertos Traditions; August 11th, Bonus Activity: Kamishibai Theater.
“It’s a big world out there,” concludes Jennifer, “so we encourage the general public to come visit us and explore the connections.”
The Castle Museum of Saginaw County History is located at 500 Federal Avenue in Downtown Saginaw and is open Monday - Wednesday from 10 am to 4:30 pm; Thursday from 10 am to 7:00 PM; Friday & Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm; and Sunday 1:00 - 4:30 pm.
16th November, 2023